An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman: Book Review

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman was intended as the first of my summer non-fiction book candies. And it was. As in her previous narrative works, An Alchemy of Mind is rich with Ackerman’s distinctive prose, brimming with metaphor and beautiful language. Her unique blend of personal exposé, research, and topic exploration work synchronously to provide a reading experience that is, if nothing else, never short of exhilarating.

The book is divided into seven broad sections (Evolution, The Physical Brain, Memory, The Self and Other Fictions, Emotions, Language, and The World We Share). Each of these hosts a series of chapters in which Ackerman seeks to define, illustrate, or otherwise come to terms with the human brain. In some, she excels; in others, I feel there was room for improvement.

(Admittedly, I may have gotten off on the wrong foot with this book initially, for the title confuses me. An Alchemy of Mind suggests to me a discourse on consciousness, an ambitious – and brave, if we’re to be honest – topic for any science writer to embark upon. However, the subtitle The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain suggests something else entirely, for no one I know equates the two, mind and brain, and indeed, Ackerman is rapid to distinguish them in her narrative but dwells more on the brain’s functions than the concept of mind.)

Beginning with Evolution, Ackerman leaves the gate strong. Her awe of and reverence for nature in general and our evolutionary heritage specifically are portrayed in exquisite detail. Perhaps the greatest strength throughout An Alchemy of Mind is the continued reliance on evolutionary principles to round out whatever discussion is at hand, providing a very nice consistency to the 300+ pages. Throughout the remainder of the book, Ackerman is by turns gently illuminating (e.g., she provides a nice elementary view of how neurons work and how neural connections are formed in the brain) and highly speculative. She intersperses her own personal musings, which are lovely, with the results of several researchers’ work, and she also includes theoretical interpretations of both brain functions and mind. This last point is interesting to me as a reader and a scientist, for popular books on scientific topics often steer clear of theory, preferring to lead the reader to conclusions rather than letting him think for himself. Kudos to Ackerman for that.

There are a number of areas in the book with which I took exception, and one of these is, I must confess, my own personal bias. On occasion, An Alchemy of Mind takes on a decidedly Freudian tone, and while I do recognize the contemporary existence of psychoanalytic scholars, much of what Ackerman weaves into her narrative in these stretches is outmoded. With regard to her discussion of evolutionary psychology, I felt she did a fine job of encapsulating classic thinking in this area, but I was dismayed that her later discussion of women’s tendency toward better encoding of emotional memory than men was not then tied back to the evolutionary care-giving role.

In the same vein, many chapters discussed hemispheric differences in the brain that have been stuied and documented by various researchers, and yet there was no attempt to synthesize what were, to me, some rather obvious associations between these seemingly unrelated studies (despite Ackerman’s penchant for pointing out how humans need to relate seemingly unrelated things). I also found her late discussion of consciousness and self-awareness, specifically with regard to non-primate species, to be a bit far fetched. She seems to want to redefine consciousness, which is all well and good if you state explicitly you are doing so and thus removing yourself from the established paradigm. Quite simply, barring a theory of mind (to be able to think about thinking), one cannot be said to be a conscious being.

Finally, and this is really a minor annoyance as opposed to a literary criticism, Ackerman has a fondness for phrases such as philosophers, scientists, and psychologists, and the overwhelming majority of psychologists I know would take umbrage at that exclusion from their primary field.

With all of the above being said and even with a slightly lacking reference list in this book, I would, do in fact, recommend An Alchemy of Mind to anyone who wishes to understand the basic functioning of the human brain and who hasn’t taken an introductory psychology or human anatomy course. Even if you have had one of those courses, I would recommend this book for its brilliant writing alone so long as one understands that the science is not deep and there will be points with which you are likely to disagree. It can never be said that Ackerman fails to ignite a certain passion with her writing, and page after page of An Alchemy of Mind comes very close to being spot on. Where she misses, she misses widely, but she can be forgiven.


Leatherdykeuk said...

Excellent review, but I'll pass on this one, I'm afraid.

stephanie said...

With your stack of TBRs, I understand. However, I think you would really enjoy her Deep Play.

Ayoub said...

After I've been through some of the ones I have waiting, I think I'll take a look! :D

stephanie said...

I'll be interested to hear your perspective, Ayoub.


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